Northwestern web controversy, Butz Arthur

January 10, 1997

Professor Puts Holocaust Theories Online, Prompting Accusations at


Much to the consternation of his employer, Arthur R. Butz, a tenured
associate professor of engineering at Northwestern University, has
long espoused the view that the genocide of European Jews in World War
II is a myth.

Butz first published his opinions 20 years ago, in a book called The
Hoax of the Twentieth Century. Scholars, and, indeed, the university
president, say his ideas are to history what theories of a flat earth
are to geography. But school officials also believe that to silence
Butz would be to thwart academic freedom, and note that over the years
Butz has complied with a university policy of teaching students only
his area of expertise, electrical engineering, leaving his Holocaust
theories at the classroom door.
Old arguments about the limits of intellectual freedom are thrust into
Now, however, Butz has used his Northwestern University Internet
access to publish his views on a Web site. That — and the fact that
an opponent of Butz was not asked to return to teach in the
engineering school — has stirred an intense debate about academic
freedom and the Internet.

On one side are those, including Northwestern University officials and
many scholars, who believe that academic freedom means the protection
of all ideas, even those that are “idiotic” and “monstrous,” two of
the adjectives Northwestern’s president, Henry S. Bienen, uses to
describe Butz’s theories.

On the other side are those, such as officials of the Simon Wiesenthal
Center in Los Angeles, who believe some ideas are so outrageous that
they have no place in an academic forum, including a
university-sponsored Internet presence.

What almost everyone agrees on, however, is that the debate about
Butz’s Web site is the newest version of old arguments about the
limits of intellectual freedom. “What it all tells me is that the same
problems that have been troublesome in print are likely to recur in
cyberspace,” said Robert M. O’Neil, past president of the universities
of Wisconsin and Virginia and now the director of the Thomas Jefferson
Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville, Va.
“Because of the far greater impact of electronic media, communication
is likely to be wider-spread geographically and more immediately
available, but the issues raised by it are not qualitatively

In recent years, stories of students’ abuse of Internet privileges
have become almost commonplace. Typically these incidents revolve
around pornographic or harassing or racist comments. O’Neil believes
it is inevitable that controversies involving professors, especially
when they hold unorthodox and even offensive views, are bound to occur
also as the Internet becomes more firmly planted in university life.
We can deal with the fact that we have online Holocaust deniers, but
the idea that that should come via Northwestern is absolutely

Rabbi Abraham D. Cooper
Associate Dean of the Wiesenthal Center
Bienen believes that principles of academic freedom must apply not
just to speech in print, on a campus quad or other traditional
academic venues, but to the Internet as well. Therefore the
university’s computer use policy says that “the network is a free and
open forum for the expression of ideas, including viewpoints that are
strange, unorthodox, or unpopular” and that no sanctions will be taken
against such views, provided it is clear that they do not represent
the university.

Butz’s web page, which includes such a disclaimer, was first posted
last spring. It caught the attention of a Chicago-area Jewish
newspaper, and then of Sheldon L. Epstein, a lawyer and engineer who
had also been teaching, as a volunteer, a course in engineering design
at Northwestern for two years.

Epstein was outraged by the site, which he describes as “a libel
against the victims of the Holocaust.”

He told university officials that he intended to respond by
incorporating into his course discussion of the Holocaust, crafted as
an exercise in thinking out an engineer’s social and moral
responsibilities in the face of genocide.

University officials disapproved, Epstein says, and asked him not to
bring the Holocaust into his class, which was called “Engineering
Design and Entrepreneurship.” Epstein persisted with his plans,
however. And several months ago he learned that his appointment at the
school would not be renewed.

Jerome B. Cohen, dean of Northwestern’s Robert R. McCormick School of
Engineering and Applied Science, acknowledged that he asked Epstein to
refrain from discussion of the Holocaust of his class. The reason,
according to a Web site Cohen has posted on the matter, is that the
material had no bearing on engineering design. Furthermore, Cohen’s
Web site says, there were other ways for Epstein to answer Butz, such
as by giving a public lecture, having an out-of-class discussion with
his students or “via the same Net.”

Cohen said in an interview that Epstein’s decision to teach the
Holocaust matter anyway played no role in the decision to drop him as
an instructor. The Cohen Web site cites, instead, a high dropout rate
for Epstein’s course and other reasons.

But Epstein insists that the reason he is no longer an instructor at
Northwestern was his determination to refute Butz in his class. “I was
not re-appointed because I chose to use the Holocaust as an example of
irresponsible and unethical behavior by engineers in the Second World
War,” He said. And he argues that this was a necessary lesson to teach
in part because he found that many young people were ignorant about
World War II atrocities.

We are an institution committed to the open expression of ideas. Thus
it is of particular importance that, inside the boundaries of the law,
we err on the side of offending people.

Henry S. Bienen
Northwestern University President
Whatever the reasons he was removed from instructing, Epstein is angry
that the university continues to be the host for Butz’s Web site, and
says his reaction today is what it was when he first discussed the
matter with engineering department officials. “I told them I think it
is unconscionable to publish that kind of material on a university
server, that the university had a responsibility under its trademark
rights, if nothing, else, to maintain the quality and caliber of its
scholarship and that Butz should be told to move his article over to
that of an independent Internet service provider, where it would be
clear that he was not being published under the imprimatur of the
university,” he said.

Epstein is not the only person who believes this. Rabbi Abraham D.
Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, which has begun a
campaign against hate speech online, has written to complain about the
site and does not buy the university’s free speech argument. “So long
as Butz is able to promote his product — his book — under the
umbrella of Northwestern University online, they are in effect giving
him a mantle of legitimacy reaching out potentially to millions of
people,” Cooper says. “We can deal with the fact that we have online
Holocaust deniers, but the idea that that should come via Northwestern
is absolutely unbelievable.”

Bienen, the president of Northwestern, has several responses. For one
thing, he notes, the appearance of the site on a university server in
no way means that the university is lending endorsement to Butz’s
ideas. In fact, in compliance with the university computer use policy,
Butz writes at the beginning of his home page that his views “are
outside the purview of my role as an Electrical Engineering faculty
member.” And elsewhere on the university Web site, Bienen has posted a
response to Butz in which he calls attempts at rewriting Nazi genocide
history “a contemptible insult.”

But, Bienen said in an interview, to ask Butz to remove his page would
be to undermine the university’s reason for being: free inquiry. “We
are an institution committed to the open expression of ideas,” he
said. “That is what a university is all about. We are that. Thus it is
of particular importance that, inside the boundaries of the law, we
err on the side of offending people.”

Bienen’s views are seconded by Peter F. Hayes, a tenured history
professor, who teaches a course in modern Germany and the Holocaust at

Hayes is appalled by Butz’s views. And yet he would not like to see
the university take action against Butz’s Web site, for fear it would
put other sites with controversial views in danger. “If the argument
is that we can’t have on the Web site things we regard as offensive or
erroneous, then any other faculty member’s Web site would be
susceptible to challenge on either of those grounds: offensive or
erroneous.” he said. “The university would begin to exercise a kind of
police power over Web sites.”

And what does Arthur Butz have to say about the debate? Butz did not
wish to speak at length about the matter, but agreed to a brief phone
interview in which he said he thought even his ideas should be
protected by notions of intellectual freedom.

“This is the argument that I think even a person who doesn’t agree
with my history thesis should nevertheless accept,” he said.

Related Sites
=46ollowing are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this
article. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web,
and The Times has no control over their content or availability. When
you have finished visiting any of these sites, you will be able to
return to this page by clicking on your Web browser’s “Back” button or
icon until this page reappears.

=95Butz home page (Page doesn`t exist)

=95University response*univ/butz.html
(Page doesn`t exist)

=95NWU Engineering Department response (Page doesn`t exist)

=95Sheldon Epstein on the controversy (Page doesn`t exist)

=95The Wiesenthal Center

Pamela Mendels at [email protected] welcomes your comments and

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